Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Becoming A Lawyer In The Old West

I’m working on a few new ideas for stories, and in the course of trying to plot one of them, I found I needed to research how people became lawyers in the Old West.
We all know how you’d study law today. One would apply for law school, complete the required coursework, take a bar exam, and voila!—you’re a lawyer. But the process was much different in the past.
During the colonial days, there were no law schools, either here in America or back in England. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years after the American Revolution that the first colleges—the College of William and Mary and the University of Pennsylvania—added a “Chair in Law” to their collegiate staff. By 1784, the Litchfield Law School opened, becoming the first official law school. It wasn’t until the 1840s and beyond that Yale, Harvard, and other prestigious institutions known today opened the doors to their law schools. And if you were a woman hoping to practice law, your choices were even fewer. Women were not allowed to study law in colleges and universities until the late 1800s or early 1900s.
So how did one become a lawyer with few choices for schooling? The short answer is—you became an apprentice. Sounds simple enough, though in my estimation, the process was anything but...
The process, called “reading law,” was composed of only two steps. First, the would-be lawyer would need to find an experienced, practicing lawyer who was willing to apprentice or mentor him. Second, under the tutelage of a willing teacher, the new apprentice would begin a period of study. There was no determined length of this period of study, so I’m led to believe the length of study depended on the how quickly the student learned and could convince his teacher he understood the ins and outs of the law.
Title page of Coke's
The Institutes of Lawes of England
There were two main texts used in this study time. The first, The Institutes of Lawes of England written by Sir Edward Coke, was a series of legal articles first published between 1628 and 1644. The other, Commentaries on the Laws of England written by Sir William Blackstone, was a 18th century publication on the common laws of England published in four volumes. I imagine that trying to muddle through these extensive tomes on a self-study course would be difficult, at best, and would probably require many long discussions between the experienced lawyer and the apprentice. In addition, other lesser-known texts could be used for clarification and support, and lectures by the “Chair of Law” professors at various colleges and universities were also used to bolster the apprentice’s understanding, if he were near enough to attend such events. For those living in out of the way places, they relied strictly on the two resources named above.
Title Page of Blackstone's
Commentaries on the Laws of England
As the study progressed and the apprentice grew in knowledge, the mentoring lawyer would allow him to do more of the work of a full-fledged lawyer, whether that was researching laws, filing petitions, or helping to prepare for trials.
In 1878, the American Bar Association was formed. Due to the association’s pressure upon the states not to admit just anyone to the Bar, the method of apprenticeship began to wane. By the 1890s, the new standard was to attend at least a couple of years of law school before one could be admitted to the bar.
A few historical figures who became lawyers via the process of “reading law” were:
Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson—7th President of the United States
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln—16th President of the United States
Calvin Coolidge
Calvin Coolidge—30th President of the United States
Robert H Jackson
Robert H Jackson—US Supreme Court Justice
Strom Thurmond
Strom Thurmond—US Senator and former Presidential candidate
Interestingly, while the standard today is for would-be lawyers to graduate from law school, there are still several states that allow people to become lawyers by reading law under the tutelage of a practicing judge or attorney, then taking the bar exam. Among them are California, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, and New York (though New York requires at least one year of law school). In 2013, sixty people in the U.S. were admitted to the Bar Association under this process, as opposed to the 84,000 people who studied in law schools before being admitted to the Bar.
It’s your turn: Would you employ the services of an attorney today who had “read law” rather than attended law school?
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.


  1. Wow, Jenn, I never knew that about Strom and I live here in SC! Thanks for sharing. Can't wait to stump some other South Carolinians with this trivia.

    1. Glad I was able to teach you something new, Debbie Lynne. ;)

  2. Hi, Jenn, I didn't know that some states still allowed people to "read" law. That's very interesting. Would I allow someone like that to represent me? I tend to look at experience as opposed to schooling. If a lawyer has a good reputation and has successfully handled similar cases he or she will be on my case.

    1. Hi Margaret, I feel much the same as you. Official education isn't everything, and certificates and diplomas don't necessarily mean one is the best qualified for the job. I think I'd be open to hiring a lawyer who'd "read" law, so long as I was confident in that person's skill as a lawyer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Great post, Jen. It's very interesting that a person can take the bar and not attend law-school beforehand. Though an education is extremely valuable, experience can be the best education. Thanks for sharing your research. I can't wait to read your new story.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Michele. Glad to have you here. I agree with you that experience is often the best teacher. There is just nothing like "on the job training."

  4. Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for your post. I am writing an historical fiction aobut an 1880's noted southwestern lawyer that is asked to train his nephew. Can you give me other sources and perhaps some trial examples where common and not so common procedures were used?